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Stuck in the starting gate Politics helps stall racetrack bid that means jobs here and in Queens

In choosing which horse to enter in a race it would be helpful to know where the race starts, where it is to end and whether or not it involves jumping over any fences. But when even the people in charge of the race haven't worked those details out among themselves, it can be darn hard for anyone else to handicap the field.

That's the unfair situation that the Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos. finds itself in as it seeks to win state approval to add a casino -- and, perhaps, much more -- to the legendary New York City racetrack at Aqueduct.

The undefined and closed-door process of awarding the contract means that, more than seven years after the Legislature made such projects legal, dreams of adding thousands of video slot machines to the Queens racetrack have gone nowhere. That's not fair to any of the would-be developers, and has been particularly hard on the Queens neighborhood that has been waiting so long for the hoped-for economic boost.

Last week, two of the three state officials who are empowered to make the decision -- Gov. David A. Paterson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- came out in favor of the proposal from Delaware North. One reason for favoring the Delaware North plan was that the $370 million up-front franchise fee it offered the cash-starved state was considerably more than those promised by its two serious rivals.

But the third official with any say-so over the decision, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, said whoa. He and Sen. Serf Maltese, who represents the Aqueduct area, questioned whether Delaware North's proposal should win when rival bids included larger and more specific plans with more in the way of hotels, restaurants and retail establishments than Delaware North first outlined.

This matters to Buffalo, because it involves about 100 jobs at the corporate headquarters here in addition to far more jobs at Aqueduct. The rival schemes, one from a consortium including Manhattan developer SL Green and another that includes Connecticut casino operator Mohegan Sun, had more appeal to Skelos, Maltese and, according to them, the neighborhoods surrounding Aqueduct.

As a result, Delaware North is rapidly amending its proposal, talking up Skelos and company, and planning trips to Albany and Queens to pitch its revised proposal. Once that is done, can demands that SL Green and Mohegan be allowed to sweeten their offers be far behind? When does it end?

Overlaying all the financial points is, of course, politics. Skelos and Maltese are Republicans. Paterson and Silver are Democrats. And so is Joe Addabbo, the New York City Councilman who has Paterson's backing in his bid to unseat Maltese and, in the process, increase the chances that control of the Senate will swing from red to blue next month.

Politics can never be totally removed from such large decisions. But the lack of an open, defined bidding process, with clear expectations and firm deadlines, has not only made the process needlessly political, it has deprived the winning developer, the community and the state of years of economic progress.

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